As a shareholder or condo owner, you’ve got a gripe. Whether it’s about Mrs. Smith’s poodle barking all day, the neighbor’s teenaged son who blasts his heavy metal music full-volume when his parents aren’t home, or a long-coveted parking space that hasn’t materialized after years of waiting, you want someone to listen—and of course, do something about your complaint.
While a seemingly unresponsive (or stone-deaf) manager or board can be profoundly frustrating, it's worthwhile to consider the approach you're taking to state your case or present your problem. Are you using the proper channels? Are you stating the issue clearly? Do you understand the rules and limitations of your own community and board? The answers to these questions have a lot to do with how soon and how satisfactorily your problem gets resolved.
Chain of Command
To have your complaint heard effectively, the first step is to follow the rules and bylaws that your association has set in place.
According to Steven Greenbaum, director of property management/asset management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate Co. LLC, with offices in New York City and Lake Success, building-related complaints can be made first to the doorman or super, and the complaint will be addressed and followed up on by the managing agent. “If you don’t receive a response within 48 hours, go up the food chain,” he says. “If it’s not resolved at the staff level send a pleasant, factual email to the managing agent asking for a timely response.”
In most buildings, how you complain really depends on what your complaint is all about; there are different approaches for complaints related to maintenance and complaints related to neighbors. “If it’s a noise or carpet issue, try speaking directly to the shareholder to see if you can work it out amicably,” suggests Jay Cohen, director of operations at Manhattan-based A. Michael Tyler Realty Corp., which manages more than 30 properties. If that doesn’t work, “then we ask that you put it in writing to us; we don’t want to take a verbal request.”
With the written complaint in hand, “We would try to contact the offending party to see if we can work it out over the phone,” says Cohen. “If that doesn’t work, we’d issue a letter. That normally works and it ends.”
Putting complaints in writing, the management experts note, creates a paper trail that can be followed until the issue is resolved
Give 'Em a Chance
Once you’ve made your complaint, the experts say, be patient and give your manager a chance to do their job. Depending on the complaint, property managers may need to hire an outside contractor to fix it—putting them at the mercy of that vendor’s schedule. That can take time, but it’s less likely to be an annoying wait if you don’t feel ignored.
The board should be a last resort for shareholders or residents with complaints–not the first place they should go when something isn't to their liking. “We get paid to do the job,” Greenbaum says. “Board members are volunteers. They should not be harassed in the hallways, or have their doorbell rung at dinner time, or when they’re walking the dog, or at the supermarket. Their role is to effectuate policy, not to deal with complaints.”
If managing agent is not responsive, though, “That’s a different problem. Your managing agent should respond, even if that response is, ‘I will bring your request to the board at the next board meeting.’ That’s fine,” Greenbaum says. “I say to all my shareholders that if they ever want to reach out to the board, reach out through the management and you will get something back in writing.”
Address the Board
If the recommended steps don’t work, consider asking to be heard at the next board meeting—but again, whether or not unit owners are allowed at the meeting depends on the governing documents.
“Certain buildings have ‘town hall’ style meetings two to three times a year, that allow shareholders and residents to come in to voice their complaints or give suggestions, so it doesn’t all build up like a pressure cooker at the annual meeting,” Cohen says. “If you address it during the year, it makes for a pleasant annual meeting.”
Valerie Mancino, president of the board at 72-10 112 Street in Forest Hills, says that having systems and procedures in place—and encouraging shareholders to follow them—makes a world of difference. “We’ve seen the best and the worst of it,” the 10-year board veteran says. Before their current management took over administration of the building, she says, “As a board, we constantly had shareholders stopping us in the hallway, stopping us in the grocery store, ringing our doorbells at night, trying to be heard with questions, issues and complaints.”
Mancino is convinced that the “heavy level of engagement” was one cause of very high turnover on the board. “Honestly, it got to the point that some folks felt harassed.”
When the new management company came on board, she said, the process for complaints or problems was presented to shareholders and residents both in writing and verbally at the annual meeting. At that meeting, she says, “I did take the opportunity to remind folks we were standing in front of them not only as a board, but also as shareholders. The co-op board is a voluntary position, and we had put a tremendous amount of work into it over the past few years because of all the projects and challenges we were faced with.
“I think it works to remind people that it is not an ‘us vs them’ relationship… “Really, we are them. We (the board members) just get to meet with the managing agent once a month.”
Still Not Satisfied?
But in the end, notes Greenbaum, “If none of that works, and if enough people feel they’re being stonewalled by the board and not being heard when there’s a problem, they can call a special meeting and replace the board. It’s not a difficult process.”
Fortunately, that's a step that rarely has to be taken. “Those situations usually come up only when a board just isn’t communicating,” Greenbaum says. “We believe effective communication is the key to a well run building. Clearly, clearly, clearly, the more people know, the happier they are.”
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator. Pat Gale, associate editor of New England Condominium, a Yale Robbins’ publication, contributed to this report.